RoboCop: The Franchise of Diminishing Returns

Few genre movies are as perfect as RoboCop. So of course they tried to milk it to death.

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is a nearly perfect blend of action film pyrotechnics, horror movie gore, revenge flick angst, and a superhero origin story. Packed with profanity, satire, incredible sound design (good god, this movie is loud), and charismatic villains, RoboCop seemed destined for cinematic immortality and introduced a main character who practically begged for broader exploitation. Over the next 25 years, there were plenty of attempts to maximize RoboCop’s franchise potential. Whether it was the limitations of the character or the imaginations of the people involved, none of these ever quite managed to put it all together.

RoboCop is a product of its time. Fully loaded with Reagan-era cynicism and endless hallmarks from that golden age of action movie excess, there’s a razor’s edge that RoboCop manages to walk. Neither a total nod-wink satire nor an endorsement of the film’s “future of law enforcement” tagline, RoboCop effortlessly blends over-the-top violence with disturbingly gory practical effects and a cutting sense of humor about consumerism, corporate culture, and the media.

Oh, and those villains! In the course of the film, RoboCop eliminates an endless parade of baddies, from Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker (whose casually reptilian utterances like “Bitches, leave” and “Just gimme my fuckin’ phone call” are delivered with such effortless abandon that they sound accidental: like the F-word equivalent of that mysterious chord that opens The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”), to Miguel Ferrer’s coke sniffing upstart corporate goon, to perpetual cinematic nice guy Ronny Cox as the appropriately named Dick Jones. Throw in Clarence’s gang of cartoon heavies for good measure and you’d be hard pressed to find a more colorful assortment of reprehensible assholes this side of Gotham City. Box office numbers were solid, reviews were positive, and Detroit had a new superhero.

It’s easy to see how a generation of pre-teens with cable subscriptions and/or permissive parents were able to sink their teeth into this ‘80s icon. The non-stop violence, nearly poetic use of profanity, terrifying giant robots, and a tragic, man/machine hero who wouldn’t be out of place in the pages of Marvel Comics (where he would eventually end up) were like catnip for kids of the era. With all of these elements in place, and a faintly dystopian near-future that with each passing year looks more and more prescient, it seemed like endless adventures for the hero who is “part man, part machine…all cop!” were all but assured. But many of the film’s strengths were either unable to translate to more franchise-friendly mediums (and with good reason), or the folks in charge simply missed the point.

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Things got off to a reasonably good start with 1988’s RoboCop arcade game. A fairly standard shoot ‘em up platformer that nevertheless boasted some above average graphics and terrific sound design. With digitized ED-209 sound effects and cast voices, a cool Robo point-of-view target practice bonus level, and what, to the untrained ear, sounds like bad guys saying “shit!” when they get popped, the RoboCop arcade game just feels right. The gleeful violence of the film found a perfect home in this game, which sucked an infinite number of quarters out of the pockets of an infinite number of suburban boys.

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From the silver screen to the arcade screen, the next logical step for a superhero like RoboCop in the post-Star Wars era was, naturally, Saturday morning cartoons and the toy aisle! RoboCop: The Animated Series and the Kenner toy line RoboCop and the Ultra Police both got going at roughly the same time. Featuring a mix of characters from the original film (Anne Lewis, Sgt. Reed, Dr. McNamara), generic toy-line-by-numbers bad guys sporting code names like “Headhunter” and “Nitro” and a few half-assed G.I. Joe rejects like “Wheels” Wilson and “Birdman” Barnes, Robocop and the Ultra Police wasn’t exactly looking for any kind of credibility or pointed satire. On the other hand, these action figures actually fired caps, because if you’ve got to get one thing right from the original film, it may as well be its ear-splitting volume. Nevertheless, the toy line did give collectors a rather cool RoboCop figure, complete with removable helmet (that reveals a fairly detailed head-sculpt) and a gun that mounts where his leg-holster would go. The animated series, on the other hand…

RoboCop: The Animated Series

RoboCop: The Animated Series. Where do I even begin? Even the most late night HBO-hardened kid could have told you that in order for RoboCop to make the jump to television, in any form, much of the film’s appeal would have to be significantly sanitized. Let’s remember that this is a superhero who, in one of his first acts as a crimestopper, calmly shoots a would-be rapist squarely in the dick. While nobody was expecting the over-the-top violence, rapid-fire displays of virtuosic profanity, or even anything resembling subtlety, RoboCop: The Animated Series still fails to distinguish itself as anything more than an attempt to set Robo up for merchandising success. While faithful to a number of elements of the Robo-mythology, its devotion to one particular element proves to be its undoing, and is also one that plagues future RoboCop installments.

In the original film, it’s unlikely anyone would mistake Peter Weller’s RoboCop for Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. RoboCop’s lack of mobility is primarily out of necessity (Rob Bottin’s impressive RoboCop suit and makeup weighed 80 pounds), but it also served to emphasize the lumbering, tragic, Frankensteinian nature of the character. That ponderous, slow, methodical approach was driven home by the film’s sound design, with Robo’s thumping footsteps as much a signature of the franchise as Darth Vader’s breathing in Star Wars.

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But within RoboCop: The Animated Series’ multitude of sins, we see the first indication of something which would hamper the idea of RoboCop as a truly effective franchise hero: Robo is slower than a city bus with a flat tire in crosstown traffic, and he gets his shiny metal ass handed to him at every opportunity. When he’s not too slow to avoid falling heavy objects, he’s powered down, scrambled, remote controlled by the bad guys, or in danger of being replaced by some shinier piece of law enforcement technology (which we’ll also see in later live-action incarnations as well). For a super strong guy made of metal, it doesn’t take much to put Robo out of action.

read more: How RoboCop’s POV Shots Help Make the Film a Classic

Someday, I’ll write a comprehensive article about every irritating little setback that effectively defeats and/or immobilizes RoboCop throughout his career, but…then again, I probably won’t do that. There are limits, even at Den of Geek.

Ironically, one of the the best episodes of RoboCop: The Animated Series is the one that fucks the most with the continuity of the original movie. Do you realize that the opening title sequence of this show features a cartoon version of Officer Murphy’s execution at the hands of Clarence Boddicker? Well, here Mr. Boddicker is alive and well, and you see him again in the episode “Menace of the Mind.” The odd standout aside, most episodes of the show are indistinguishable from any number of other animated TV show plots of the era, from G.I. Joe to C.O.P.S. If it’s any consolation, it’s far better than the virtually unwatchable RoboCop: Alpha Commando animated series that came around in 1998.

I can accept the lack of swear words and the understandable transformation of the film’s gun battles into bloodless, non-lethal laser gun affairs, seriously reminiscent of that other famous animated toy commercial, G.I. Joe. Then again, G.I. Joe managed to have the occasionally subversive episode, like the one that was a tripping balls homage to The Prisoner featuring Shipwreck, but I digress. In the series, Anne Lewis’ transformation from tough, gum-popping badass to an occasionally lovestruck bit of window dressing who GOES ON DATES WITH ROBOCOP is enough to send RoboCop: The Animated Series well over the line from “sanitized” to SNL-style RoboCop parody. On the other hand, RoboCop’s non-lethal weaponry returned for the 2014 reboot, so perhaps RoboCop: The Animated Series was simply ahead of the curve.

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By the time RoboCop 2 rolled around in 1990, the franchise had already been confused and diluted. Paul Verhoeven was out, opting instead to direct that summer’s brilliant Total Recall, and in was Empire Strikes Back director, Irvin Kirshner, with a screenplay co-written by Frank Miller. Given the first film’s tonal similarities (coincidental though they may have been) to Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, and the man who directed the very best Star Wars film, what could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, it would turn out.

Much like RoboCop: The Animated Series was the harbinger of Robo’s many weaknesses as an action character, RoboCop 2 exposed how poorly the franchise could fare when the razor sharp wit of the first film was replaced by more on-the-nose situations and an ultimately tedious “drugs are bad” message. RoboCop 2’s best sequence remains the roll-out of potential “RoboCop 2” models, each one more terrifying and prone to malfunction than the last. The scene is played for laughs, but watching it today, the evil scientists’ quest to improve on the intangible formula that made RoboCop the character so effective can almost be seen as a metaphor for how the suits’ desperate desire to turn RoboCop the concept into a viable franchise misfired at every turn. Kurtwood Smith and Miguel Ferrer are sorely missed, as is anything resembling the title character’s growth after his breakthrough final word of the first film: “Murphy.”

Alex Murphy in RoboCop

Which brings us to another issue that has hampered the growth of a RoboCop franchise. The first film deals with Alex Murphy’s violent transformation from man into machine, and his painful crawl back to humanity, and really, all the rotten bastards he annihilates along the way are just there to give him something to do and keep the audience awake. By his final line in the film, Alex Murphy has appeared to, at least somewhat, regain his soul. But all future iterations of the character conveniently ignore this, either via necessity or plot device, in order to keep Robo as a monotonous robotic law enforcement machine. To keep this in strictly geeky terms, imagine if Luke Skywalker was the same whiny hothead in Return of the Jedi as he was in the original Star Wars, and you’re getting to the crux of the problem.

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While the less said about RoboCop 3, the better, it’s unavoidable. It’s unfair to pick on Robert Burke, the actor tasked with replacing Peter Weller (who felt that David Cronenberg’s film version of, of all things, Naked Lunch, was a better career move than getting in the metal suit for the third installment), as the writing was already on the wall for this flick. Monster Squad director Fred Dekker stepped in. “I wanted to pay homage to Verhoeven and get back to the roots of what the character was all about,” he said. “I wanted this movie to be a much broader comic book action-adventure than the previous two movies had been…and because kids seem to love this character, we were also aiming for a PG-13 rating. RoboCop 3 is not as violent or brutal as the other two films.”

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The contradictory nature of this statement, from wanting to pay homage to Verhoeven’s vision to wanting to make a film suitable for kids, certainly encapsulates many of the problems, not just with RoboCop 3, but with the franchise as a whole at this point. The addition of a jetpack may help with RoboCop’s mobility issues, and as the 2014 remake proved, making an effective PG-13 RoboCop film is certainly within the realm of possibility, that wasn’t the case with this unfortunate entry, ninja robots and all. 

RoboCop - Marvel Comics

Interlaced throughout RoboCop’s career were a number of comic books (of varying quality) from publishers as diverse as Marvel, Dark Horse, Avatar Press, BOOM! Studios, and Dynamite. At least Marvel’s Judge Dredd-lite 23 issue ongoing series was weirder and more violent than the cartoon it ran at the same time with. Avatar published a comic book adaptation of an early draft of the Frank Miller RoboCop 2 screenplay. Indeed, the only one that truly distinguishes itself is Frank Miller and Walt Simonson’s 1992 Robocop vs. Terminator for Dark Horse Comics, which is every bit as awesome as the title makes it sound (and which spawned a decent Sega Genesis game, too!). However, Robo’s comic history is a tangled web of its own, and you can read more about it here.

Still, In six short years, RoboCop had gone from a franchise that started out with such promise to…well…not very promising. It might just be that the character simply wasn’t built to sustain the kind of multi-media storytelling that his corporate masters envisioned for him. Robo only fared marginally better in two live-action television versions of his story.

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The first, RoboCop: The Series, ran for 22 episodes, toned down the violence, and amped up the satire…to mixed results. RoboCop: The Series came from the minds of Ed Neumier and Michael Miner, writers of the first film, and the show borrowed elements from their unproduced sequel, RoboCop: The Corporate Wars. While the show had some reasonable production values for a syndicated show, ratings were poor, recognizable characters beyond Robo were noticeably absent, and the series often took bizarre turns…like the time RoboCop took on a superhero named Commander Cash, played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

The next, RoboCop: Prime Directives, a mini-series of four feature length episodes fares little better, despite being less bashful about the occasional bit of ultra-violence. Just as RoboCop: The Series ignores the events of the sequels, the exact relationship Prime Directives has to the previous TV series or anything beyond the first film is murky at best. While the animated series and comic books couldn’t be expected to necessarily agree with the more graphically violent films, the constant shuffling of continuity between the live-action interpretations of RoboCop help to illustrate the insurmountable problems of the first film’s legacy.

Jose Padilha’s RoboCop remake

So, taking all of this into account, it’s easy to see how a studio might be willing to take a different road with the RoboCop concept. Jose Padilha’s RoboCop remake elicited strong feelings from fans (before any had even seen a single frame of film), simply because the original is such a revered piece of genre filmmaking. And while the RoboCop reboot was a conflicted and not entirely effective film, there is one thing it inarguably did much better than the original: this RoboCop had all of its franchise ducks in a row, right out of the gate.

Setting aside the toned down violence and profanity, and the decidedly unsubtle (but still effective) FOX News jabs, Joel Kinnaman’s RoboCop was a more franchise-friendly character than Peter Weller’s RoboCop ever could have been. The film itself even seems to engage in a little meta-commentary on this, as RoboCop is never sold to the public as “product” but as Alex Murphy, the heroic cop who has been transformed into a machine in order to continue to serve the community that he nearly gave his life for.

Other than the film’s middle act, where Murphy’s emotions and personality are chemically suppressed in order to make him a more effective fighting machine, there’s very little doubt that the man in the machine will eventually emerge. Murphy awakens fully (and horrifyingly) aware of what he has lost and can never regain. While this makes for a far less conflicted RoboCop film than its 1987 progenitor, it did allow the lead actor’s face and unaltered voice more prominence throughout the film. So, that issue with Murphy struggling to regain his humanity, only to accept that he’s as human as he’s going to get at the end of the original RoboCop, and then have that all be promptly forgotten in the sequels? “Fixed.” 

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And then there’s the mobility issue. This sleek, “tactical” Robo was able to run at top speed, leap from high places, and essentially run circles around his Frankenstein’s monster forebear. Is it possible that previous Robo-incarnations would have taken this route were Rob Bottin’s incredible prosthetic suit not so cumbersome? Perhaps. Would it have added anything to the story other than some visual pizazz? Probably not. 

The 2014 movie did manage to slip a few ambitious (although somewhat muddled) messages in that would be worthy of any RoboCop update, reboot or otherwise. But these same themes are equally susceptible to being as completely mishandled by future writers and directors as those in the original. But since it doesn’t look like we’re likely to get a sequel to this one, none of this really matters.

The RoboCop concept is too good not to exploit. The original film will stand the test of time, and nothing that any reboot can do could possibly diminish that legacy more than what the sequels and other attempts to cash in already have. RoboCop 1987 may have to remain preserved as a virtually perfect action film, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see anything quite like it again, although it would appear that the franchise is now going to attempt to go back to its roots with an offering from one of Robo’s original creators.

Hopefully they get it right this time.

This article originally ran on February 14th, 2014. It has been slightly updated.